UK Men's Basketball

Five big recruiting questions for the UK basketball team heading into this offseason

John Clay and Mark Story on UK's loss, the season as a whole, and what's ahead for the Cats

Lexington Herald-Leader sports columnists John Clay and Mark Story discuss Kentucky’s 61-58 loss to Kansas State, the season as a whole and look ahead to next year.
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Lexington Herald-Leader sports columnists John Clay and Mark Story discuss Kentucky’s 61-58 loss to Kansas State, the season as a whole and look ahead to next year.

Another Kentucky basketball season is finished, this one ending two wins short of Final Four hopes that seemed realistic a few months ago and appeared likely coming into this week.

The Wildcats fell in the Sweet 16 on Thursday night to Kansas State, and the UK program will now head into another offseason of uncertainty.

It’ll also be an offseason of possibilities as John Calipari tries to secure some late additions to his 2018 recruiting class and waits to see which of his current players will return for another go.

Here are five of the most important UK recruiting questions that should be answered in the next few weeks:

What will E.J. Montgomery do?

Kentucky is clearly in the top tier of options for Montgomery, the best uncommitted post player in the 2018 class and the only player from that group with a scholarship offer from the Wildcats.

The 6-foot-11 prospect from Marietta, Ga., has taken recent unofficial visits to Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky, and those three teams entered this month as the perceived favorites in his recruitment. He’ll play in the McDonald’s All-American Game here next week, and it’s possible that he will take return trips to those three schools (and maybe a couple of others) before making his college decision.

E.J. Montgomery is one of the top players in the 2018 class. Todd Burandt adidas

Montgomery — the No. 6 overall recruit in the 2018 class, according to the 247Sports rankings — is projected as an instant-impact player and could start in the frontcourt for UK or any of the other schools on his list next season.

“He has the ability to step out on the floor and drive guys or make jump shots,” 247Sports analyst Evan Daniels told the Herald-Leader last month. “But I think, early in his career, he got a little married to that. What I really like about him (now) is that he’s blending his ability to post and score around the basket, and then stepping out some. When he starts inside and works his way out, he’s at his best.

“I think his mentality and his physical tools and his skill set would allow him to be a major-impact contributor from day one, wherever he chooses.”

Coming out of Thursday’s loss, Montgomery will likely be the No. 1 short-term recruiting priority for Calipari and his coaching staff.

Who stays, who goes?

Before we get any further into the recruiting dynamics of this offseason, it’ll be important to see which of Kentucky’s current players decide to come back for another year of college.

Projected lottery picks Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander seem the most likely to jump to the NBA Draft as one-and-done players, but others will probably join them in the coming weeks.

The deadline to withdraw from this year’s draft and return to college is May 30. That’s when the dust should settle on the bulk of UK’s roster — don’t forget that the Cats will be adding highly touted recruits Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson and Immanuel Quickley, as well — and that’s also when it will become more clear what other positions of need Calipari might have for next season.

UK clearly would like to add one more frontcourt player. The Cats have also been circling some talented backcourt options. Speaking of …

Will any five-star players move to 2018?

The answer to that question will almost certainly be, “Yes.”

Last year, the recruiting world saw No. 1 prospect Marvin Bagley reclassify from 2018 to 2017 after playing in the summer-ending Nike Peach Jam event. Bagley committed to Duke in August and was in college classes a few days later.

There’s been buzz for months that other five-star players will follow that trend this summer: play one final season of AAU ball, then announce a late reclassification and join the program of their choice in time for the fall semester.

A few possibilities to go that route have already popped up.

James Wiseman — the No. 1 junior in the country — is the biggest name on that list, and his recruitment is expected to come down to UK and Memphis (more on that later).

Highly touted point guard Ashton Hagans — a top-10 recruit in the junior class — decommitted from Georgia last month, and he’s been rumored as a reclassification candidate for months, even before his original pledge to the Bulldogs.

“My guess would be he ends up in the 2018 class,” Daniels told the Herald-Leader a couple weeks ago.

There’s also five-star combo guard Jalen Lecque, a New York native playing his high school ball in North Carolina who has been on UK’s radar in recent months. The Cats have yet to extend a scholarship offer to Lecque, but — if they need to add a backcourt player late in the process — he would be a great option.

Lecque — the No. 10 overall player in the 247Sports rankings — was originally part of the 2018 class before moving to 2019, and he’s acknowledged he might jump back to 2018.

UK’s lone 2019 commitment, D.J. Jeffries, has also been mentioned as a reclassification candidate, though he told the Herald-Leader last week that he intends to stick in the 2019 class.

What’s happening in Memphis?

If the E.J. Montgomery question is the biggest in UK’s short term, this is the one to watch over the weeks and months that follow.

Penny Hardaway was officially named the head coach of the Memphis Tigers on Tuesday, and he’s expected to be an immediate recruiting force for his alma mater. Kentucky could be the victim of those early recruiting efforts.

Hardaway coached Wiseman with his Team Penny summer squad and this past season with Memphis East, which won a state championship a few days ago. Wiseman moved from his Nashville high school just to play for Penny and Memphis East, and — though he has said he intends to play his senior season for that school — the reclassification rumors will only intensify now that Hardaway has a college job.

Whether Wiseman stays in 2019 or moves to 2018, his recruitment is expected to end with a commitment to Kentucky or Memphis.

Calipari hasn’t secured a top-five signee in the past three cycles, and he hasn’t signed a consensus No. 1 recruit since Nerlens Noel six years ago. Wiseman would be a huge addition, no matter when he plays his college ball.

Hardaway is also now targeting Hagans, and he coached Jeffries with Team Penny last summer. Jeffries told the Herald-Leader that Hardaway’s move to Memphis would not affect his UK commitment, but — until he signs with Kentucky — the Tigers will be hoping for a flip.

Any major changes in recruiting?

This season has been played with the cloud of the federal investigation into corruption in the sport hanging over it, and the NCAA’s biggest response to that probe so far has been the formation of the Commission on College Basketball.

The Commission is set to hand over its recommendations for how to clean up college basketball to NCAA decision-makers on April 25, and the NCAA is hoping to implement those changes by the start of next season.

The Commission’s recommendations will surely include alterations to the recruiting process. What exactly those changes might be, we won’t know for another month or so, and then it’ll be up to the NCAA to actually follow through with the fixes.

As that process unfolds, there remains the possibility that other schools, coaches and players could be implicated in past transgressions in the sport that continue to trickle out and become public.

Programs mentioned in such reports have, so far, seen losses on the recruiting trail. Those losses have become gains for others as this process moves along to an uncertain end. And, as that continues, the college basketball landscape could look a whole lot different when next season begins.

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